4 Christmas Carols with Surprisingly Wayward Messages

Do you hear what I hear? Tis' the season for Christmas music. Our churches, stores, restaurants, radios, and elevators are filled with melodic reminders of that silent night, when Heaven and earth rejoiced. But are the lyrics to some of our most cherished Christmas carols entirely accurate? Do they convey the true message of Christmas?

Even though the sacred songs of the season may inspire us and uplift our spirits, we must be careful not to rely on them as inerrant truth. Here are four classic Christmas carols that stray from the Biblical narrative: 

Photo Credit: David Beale/Unsplash 

Away in a Manger

For more than a century this sweet song has delighted young and old alike. Some suggest that Martin Luther penned this hymn for his son, Hans. But others suspect the beloved song was written by an anonymous American composer years later. Verses 1 and 2 of Away in the Manger first appeared in Little Children's Book for Schools and Families, by J. C. File, Philadelphia, in 1885. 

While this Christmas carol does a good job of helping listeners and singers experience the sights and sounds of the nativity story, the second verse makes a dangerous assertation.  

“The cattle were lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” 

Human babies cry. By making the statement that newborn Jesus did not cry, is the writer of this hymn suggesting that Christ was not fully human? The Bible clearly tells us that our eternal God entered our physical world through Jesus and became fully human while maintaining his deity (John 1:14, Colossians 2:9).

Scripture shows Christ’s humanity in body, mind, heart, and will. Jesus cried (John 12:27). He got tired, thirsty, and hungry (John 4:6, John 19:28, Matthew 4:2). and was tempted in all ways just as we are, yet He did not sin (Hebrews 4:15).

This seemingly small error in the lyrics may seem insignificant, but not if you stop to consider the bigger picture. Jesus’s deity/humanity was an important component of God’s redemptive plan. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). 

Docetism is the Gnostic doctrine that denies that Jesus was fully human while He lived on earth. The early church was warned about this kind of heresy (1 John 4:2; 2 John 7). Christians today must be armed with truth, to keep false teaching from creeping into our theology—even through the faulty line of a Christmas classic.

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

U.S. pastor and writer, Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote the song It Came Upon a Midnight Clear in the year 1849. The lyrics weave a beautiful imagery through every line and verse, giving us a glimpse of angels bending near to earth with their peaceful wings unfurling to touch harps of gold, in celebration of the Messiah’s birth. But Sears didn’t write the song to be sung as a traditional Christmas carol. 

A passionate opponent of slavery, Sears wrote the hymn as a plea for the country to recognize the Prince of Peace as the ultimate unifier during Christmastime. The song is considered one of the first social gospel hymns written in America, and it arose from Sear’s battle with illness and depression and his deep concern over the unrest the country faced with the approaching Civil War. 

The hymn’s themes of peace and good will toward men have stood the test of time and still speak profoundly to the hope that Christ can bring in times of turmoil. Unfortunately, the fifth stanza departs from this Christ-filled hope to encourage reliance on pagan superstition:

“For lo! the days are hastening on by prophet bards foretold, When, with the ever-circling years shall come the age of gold.” 

Sears was theologically conservative by Unitarian standards, and scholars describe the minister as deeply devout. But he was also intrigued by mystical tradition, which may account for his lapse into the pagan imagery represented in this controversial fifth stanza. 

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Mary, Did You Know?

Written in 1991 by songwriter and comedian, Mark Lowry, this more modern song is already considered a Christmas classic. Since its debut by the Gaither Vocal Band thirty years ago, the song has been recorded by hundreds of secular and Christian artists. Lowry spent seven years perfecting Mary, Did You Know? after his friend, Jerry Falwell, enlisted Lowry’s musical help with his church’s Broadway-style Christmas program. 

The song is written as a series of 17 open-ended questions directed to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Lowry came up with the idea for the song after pondering what it might be like to sit down with Mary and have her describe her own thoughts and feelings about Jesus’s birth. 

Few can deny that Mary, Did You Know? offers thought-provoking inspiration. But there’s one major problem with the theme of the song. The Bible clearly shows us that Mary did know.  

In Luke 1:26-38, Mary’s encounter with Gabriel confirms that Mary did know that her son was the Son of God—the Lord of all creation, the ruler of nations, the great deliverer. Not only did Mary fully understand that she would soon deliver the long-awaited Messiah, but she expressed her joyful acceptance of the holy privilege through her own magnificent song in Luke 1:46-56

Again, many Believers might roll their eyes at the error in this song’s theme. But even if the song points to God and helps Christians experience the nativity in a deeper way, the truth from Scripture still matters. Especially when that truth reveals God’s true character. 

We Three Kings

We Three Kings

An Episcopal deacon by the name of John Henry Hopkins, Jr. wrote We Three Kings in 1857, as a Christmas pageant piece for the General Theological Seminary in New York City. The wildly popular carol was later published in Hopkins’ 1862 songbook titled, Carols, Hymns, and Songs

The song attempts to describe the journey of the Magi, mentioned in Matthew’s account of the nativity (Matthew 2:1-12). However, many details in the song are based on layers of legend, myth, and apocryphal writings. The image of three swarthy kings, dressed in royal garments, riding camels, and carrying large trunks has become the traditional imagery for art, nativity displays, and pageants—but these images are not supported by Scripture.  

When tradition begins to trump Scripture—and skews our perception of truth, it’s important to return to the source of truth for a closer examination of the facts. “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him … After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:1-2; 9-11).

Matthew’s account doesn’t identify the travelers as kings, but as Magi. It also doesn’t specify the number of Magi in the group. And Scripture doesn’t indicate that the Magi were from a faraway Eastern country like India, Persia, or China. These and many other traditions, like the Magi’s names and their mode of transportation were legends that evolved from one speculation to the next. When Scripture tells a different story than the carol we’re singing, we must rely on Biblical truth to inform our theology. 

Should Christians Purge Errant Carols?

The songs we use for worship matter. When we lift our hearts and voices in praise, the words that echo God’s truth back to Him reinforce our understanding of who He is—and they acknowledge our joyful surrender to His lordship. But the condition of our heart is even more important than our words, “for out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).

If we want our hearts to overflow with truth, we must stay in God’s Word so that He can instruct our hearts in righteousness. When we do that, our theology will be grounded in truth, and we need not be afraid that an errant line in a hymn will lead us astray. The truth will also prepare us to gently expose error to others who may be vulnerable to deception. 

Christmas carols can draw us closer to God and each other, as we celebrate the incarnation of our Lord and Savior. So … “Come all ye faithful. Come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord. O sing hallelujah. He alone is worthy.”

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Robert Thiemann 


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